Shortly after Joan La Barbara delivered the closing line (“The old man lives in concrete”) in Robert Ashley’s new experimental opera Concrete on Sunday night, I was reminded of a favorite phrase that Don Sinta, my teacher and mentor at the University of Michigan, would produce when I had the gall to inform him that the story he had begun to tell me was, in point of fact, one that he’d related me before (although I always withheld the fact that it was routinely the fourth or fifth time I’d heard any particular story): “Just let the old man talk.” And I did. Always. Because who would forfeit the opportunity to hear such colorful stories and anecdotes from someone who’d been a part of so many important ground-breaking and history-shaping events and trends no matter times you’ve heard them before? But it wasn’t so much that we’d already heard the stories that Ashley was telling in Concreteâ€”my metaphor falls a little flat thereâ€”as much as that’s what the opera was all about: an old man telling a few stories.
Four singersâ€”Thomas Buckner, Jaqueline Humbert, Sam Ashley, and Joan La Barbaraâ€”sit around a card table playing with an oversized deck, gossiping, bickering, and pondering life’s imponderables in a modified brand of sprechtstimme. These ensemble episodes alternate with extended solo narratives by each singer, recounting a variety of unnamed acquaintances and instances of playing the ponies, an almost head-on car collision on a narrow mountain road, scoring and not scoring cocaine, and certain supernatural occurrences.
Mr. Ashley supplied the musical accompaniment for the opera through his computer, which if you’d read any of the press leading up to the opera’s performances, you were lead to believe was going allow for live manipulation of the singers’ voices and underlying texture, paving the way for each performance to be changeable and unique. Instead, the music throughout was more of an ambient wash that didn’t change much at all save for the few low bass grumblings and high pitched bell-like interjections that occasionally emerged from the digital drone. (N.B. More than once, these sci-fi-ish sounds scared me into thinking that I’d forgotten to turn off my cell phone.) And as for real-time manipulation, the computer’s interactivity never went past how much reverb or delay was added to or removed from each singer’s voice during their solos.
But you got the impression that the music wasn’t nearly as important as the text. So much so, in fact, that I felt like you needed to experience Concrete much like you’d read a novel. And the distinctive way in which each singer delivered their soliloquiesâ€”Ms. Humbert was sing-songy, Mr. Buckner’s delivery arched toward dramatic peaks, Ms. La Barbara seemed almost conversational, while Mr. Ashley’s cadence tended toward that of an auctioneerâ€”was instrumental in sustaining a sense of diversity against a rather static sonic backdrop. Yet for me, depsite the cast’s formidable individual talents, the most interesting parts of the opera were the ensemble sections. During these vignettes the singers playfully interacted with each other in an uninterrupted din of small talk about both the mundane and extraordinary and dead-pan banter. Sam Ashley’s understated delivery was marvelously monotonous despite his quick registral changes and abrupt hitches in speech, providing the most interesting contrast and counterpoint in the entire opera. And in a piece so focused on the text, that the cast was able to articulate it so compellingly turned out to be very important indeed.